By Umer Nangiana / Zia Khan
Published: March 16, 2011
Former prime minister and PPP leader Benzair Bhutto was killed in a shooting and suicide bombing on December 27, 2007 in Rawalpindi.
“Jahan shikar ziada ho ga, shikari udhar he aye ga. Aur Islamabad main shikar bahut hai.” (Hunters love fields abundant with prey and there is a lot of prey in Islamabad This is how a senior police official summed up Islamabad’s security situation.
Despite being home to the establishment’s top leadership, the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi have become desperately insecure. Over the past few years, several high profile assassination attempts, bombs blasts and shootings have exposed just how vulnerable security in these cities is.
On paper, Islamabad seems to be secure and well-guarded against terrorist threats. At one point, the city could boast of 93 police check posts, although the number has since gone down to 43.
Every checkpoint is manned by at least three police personnel and a gunner equipped with a Chinese made Semi-Machine Gun or a Kalashnikov. Their job is to check every vehicle entering the city for possible terror threats, and to respond to a threat if it should arise.
However, till this day officials can cite only one incident where security personnel at a check post successfully prevented an attack: in March 2009, police constable Faisal Jan Khan stopped a suicide bomber at the Police Special Branch’s gate in Sitara market G-7. He saved dozens of his colleagues working inside the building as the bomber failed to get past him.
Check posts aren’t meant to be the only deterrent — the two large truck-mounted explosive detectors that Pakistan imported from China at great cost are also stationed around Islamabad. However, suicide bombers, explosives and gunmen still enter the city freely.
One would also think that the city would be better protected by virtue of the proximity of police officials to powerful decision makers — but extracting funds from the government is still a painful process.
Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti’s assassination in broad daylight was a painful reminder of the inadequacy of security in Islamabad. Why do high profile targets seem most vulnerable in the capital?
A senior police official requesting anonymity laughs when he is asked to comment on the notion that Islamabad looks like it is ‘better protected’ than other cities. “All this security… it is just a smokescreen, conjured to appease certain political interests,” he says.
The officer said that only 3,000 police personnel out of a total strength of 10,000 were available for operational duties including counter-terrorism and maintaining law and order. He added that over 1,000 policemen were tasked with clerical duties.
The security division of the police is responsible for the safety of all VVIPs, VIPs, diplomats, Judges of the Supreme Court and foreign delegations. Billions of rupees are being spent on the salaries and upkeep of FC and Rangers personnel.
However, the official said the security division was not using its resources well. “The security division is not able to make a justified division of the force according to its needs. There is simply too much political interference,” he says.
“FC and Rangers forces are a status symbol,” he adds. The official said these forces were used by those who had ‘political influence,’ and were allocated according to the whims of certain people in the Interior Ministry, the Presidency and Prime Minister’s Secretariat.
As a result, government officials who were not under any significant threat roamed around with a huge security detail while actual targets, like former Minister for Religious Affairs Hamid Saeed Kazmi, were without any security at all.
Kazmi was accompanied by only one police constable when he survived an assassination attempt in 2009. He escaped only because the constable sacrificed his life to save the minister. “I was not provided any security escort,” admitted the former religious minister in a National Assembly session recently.
Additionally, standard operating procedures (SOPs) for security are vague, or they are not followed at all. “People provided with proper security, like minorities minister Bhatti, were not willing to sacrifice their privacy,” says an official from the security division. “They were reluctant to follow instructions from their security head and wanted to keep their private life hidden from even their security detail,” he added. The official suggested that people under threat should be advised on how to best utilize their security cover.
However, where does the burden to take decisions really lie — on the person under threat, or his security head?
In manuals dealing with SOPs for VVIP and VIP security, it is stated that a security escort is bound to follow instructions only from its head and not the person they guard. It is the security detail’s responsibility to anticipate threats and warn the VIP of it, and make subsequent arrangements to counter the threat.
However, this practice is rarely followed in real life, and when the ‘target’ starts making decisions, things become risky. “Bhatti tried to keep his actual residence secret from his security escort which cost him dearly in the end,” says a police official close to the investigation into the assassination.
Apart from the lapse in following SOPs, security officials admit that they are poorly trained in counter-terrorism. “Whatever little we have learned we learned in the field,” says a police constable standing guard at a picket.
Senior Superintendent of Police (Operations) Tahir Alam Khan admits that police personnel were too stressed to find enough time for specialised training in counter-terrorism. In addition, desperately needed recruitments in the capital police were on a halt for over two years due to political interference. The police also lack modern gadgetry to help them trace perpetrators of terrorist activities. More than 90 per cent of the budget allocated for security forces is consumed in salaries, says an officer deputed at the headquarters of the police.
On the other hand, terrorists are not only more motivated now, they are better trained, says an official of the special branch. “Our forces also need to be taught about different ideologies that terrorist adhere to — because a majority of the police were found to be sympathetic toward people involved in Lal Masjid during the military operation against them,” he said. He added that cases like Salmaan Taseer’s murder also caused policemen to have mixed feelings about the killer.
Police officers say their problems are being compounded by the Criminal Justice System which is serving the interests of terrorists and miscreants.
‘Ninety per cent of alleged terrorists freed by the courts never return to their homes. They go back to join their terrorist organisations,” says an intelligence official. He adds that these suspects were released by the courts because of ‘insufficient evidence’ but they were actually established terrorists.
The official said these terrorists take refuge in madrassas, which are becoming increasingly difficult to monitor. He recommended changes to the Anti-Terrorism Act and Evidence Act to address the changed scenario of terrorism, they stressed equally on regulating religious seminaries.
But accordingly to security officials, unless the entire security system is revamped, the criminal justice system is improved and political influence is decreased… better security for the twin cities is nothing more than a dream.
Maulana Azam Tariq, 2003
A member of the National Assembly and chief of the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, Tariq was assassinated by unidentified gunmen in Islamabad on October 6, 2003.
Pervez Musharraf, 2003
Former President Musharraf was attacked twice in 2003 — the first attempt on his life took place on December 14, 2003 as a bomb exploded near his convoy in Rawalpindi. He was attacked again by car bombs on December 25, also in Rawalpindi.
Pervez Musharraf, 2007
The former president was targeted again on July 6, 2007, when someone fired a submachine gun at his aircraft in Rawalpindi.
Benazir Bhutto, 2007
Former prime minister and PPP leader Benzair Bhutto was killed in a shooting and suicide bombing on December 27, 2007 as she left a campaign rally in Liaquat Park in Rawalpindi.
Mushtaq Baig, 2008
Army medical officer Lt General Mushtaq Baig was killed in Rawalpindi in a suicide attack on February 25, 2008.
Yousuf Raza Gilani, 2008
The prime minister’s convoy was fired at on September 3, 2008, as the car was on its way to collect Gilani from Islamabad airport.
Ameer Faisal Alavi, 2008
A high-ranking army official, Major General (R) Ameer Faisal Alavi was gunned down in Islamabad on
November 19, 2008. Alavi was the former head of the Army’s Elite Commando Force.
Hamid Saeed Kazmi, 2009
The then-religious affairs minister was attacked by unknown gunmen yards away from his office on September 2, 2009. Kazmi survived the attack.
Moinudin Ahmed, 2009
Brigadier Moinudin Ahmed was killed by gunmen who fired at his Army jeep in Islamabad on October 22, 2009.
Sheikh Rasheed Ahmad, 2010
Awami Muslim League Chief Sheikh Rasheed Ahmad was wounded in an assassination attempt as gunmen fired at his vehicle outside his party’s election office on February 8 2010.
Salman Taseer, 2011
Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was gunned down by his own guard in Islamabad on January 4, 2011. Taseer was actively protesting against the blasphemy law.
Shahbaz Bhatti, 2011
Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti was shot in his car as he left his home in Islamabad on March 2, 2011. Bhatti had confessed that he feared for his life.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, March 13th, 2011.